Doctor Strange is a movie I’ve been anticipating ever since it was announced, and I know I’m not alone. You’ll be pleased to learn Marvel Studios continues acing their high-wire act of creating non-stinkers and, depending on your taste, has produced one of their finest, most visually unique films to date.
What sets Doctor Strange apart from the other Marvel movies most is its aesthetic, which is very much its own. From the trippy “opening of the third eye” sequences in the beginning of the second act to the folding of space into fractals we saw so much of in the trailers, many compared this to the visual style of Inception with its folding buildings and impossible architecture; there are similarities, but the movie isn’t a one-trick pony, and uses the effect only in certain sequences. What surprised me is how they made the styles of magic make sense in the universe. The fractal effect isn’t simply “rule of cool” — it has a grounding in the plot, if you pay close attention.
There has been some criticism of the film not being as surreal as it could be, with the painful soundbite of it not being “Strange enough.” If you’re going into Doctor Strange expecting an art-house experience, you’ll be disappointed. This is a studio blockbuster with some surreal edges, not Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind dressed up as a superhero movie. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
The film looks stunning. As a blockbuster, it’s a real visual feast. I didn’t see the film in 3D, but I can imagine some of the sequences bringing on eye-strain in those who are susceptible, so consider this a soft warning. I never felt I was missing anything in 2D, despite the film’s 3D aspects being hyped up. It’s just not worth the potential headache. Other than that, I would definitely say Doctor Strange is a good cinema experience.
The film has a somewhat non-conventional climax — which I shall not spoil here — that was clever and made use of the ingenuity we’d seen the character display up until that point. What I will also give Marvel credit for is that the trailers don’t ruin the movie; a lot of the detail we see is quite early in the movie, and visuals taken from later portions are out of context enough it doesn’t spoil them. There are still a few tricks the film saves for your full viewing, which is depressingly rare in 2016 trailers.
The only major criticism I can level is the brisk pace it goes by at. There is a lot to cram in and that leads to some slightly abridged-feeling sections. For example, his training in the mystical arts is one such point that obviously tries to avoid the typical training montage, but jumps from him being completely inept to being quite gifted in a very brief section of on-screen time.
Benedict Cumberbatch acquits himself admirably as Steven Strange, the arrogant rock-star surgeon turned mystic guardian. His journey feels quite natural despite the fast pace, but his performance isn’t given the room to breathe that would make it a classic performance. His on-screen charisma and gravitas are as present as ever, though, and it never sacrifices enjoyability for straining to seem ‘meaningful’ and’ grown up’ like so much Oscar bait.
The supporting cast, too, delivers strong performances. Mads Mikkelsen is a suitably menacing and somewhat three-dimensional villain along with the menacing background presence of Dormammu. Tilda Swinton feels like an appropriately wise and monkish “Ancient One.” Chiwetel Ejiofor’s subtle and conflicted portrayal of Mordo will be a nice touch to those familiar with where the character is going from the comics. A real highlight is Benedict Wong, fittingly playing the librarian Wong, and delivering a great straight-man performance for Cumberbatch to bounce off.
Again, the only criticism here is that I wish we had more time with all of these characters to better flesh them out. Watching the Marvel series on Netflix brings home the push and pull between cinematic spectacle/polish and box-set expansiveness.
Doctor Strange is a good movie, maybe even a great one. It stands on its own in the Marvel universe whilst adding a new dimension of mystic and magic. It feels almost passé to say a Marvel film is “good” at this point; we’ve got so used to them being at a higher minimum quality threshold than almost any studio that a decent superhero movie from an unproven IP seems unremarkable.
But it is remarkable. Marvel puts this story on-screen with a great amount of confidence. It never shies away from the magical aspects, tries to add layers of sci-fi or explanation. This is balls-out magic; people are slinging spells left and right, and a lesser studio would worry about alienating people and maybe pull back from it.
At this point in the cycle, it would be easy just to stick to a formula. Doctor Strange feels like a comic book movie through and through without feeling too similar to previous efforts. The film integrates into the Marvel Cinematic Universe without feeling homogenised by it and without alienating existing audiences. Scott Derrickson does a great job in the directing seat serving a variety of audiences. Simultaneously making a film that fits into the Marvel Universe, whilst also making it distinct enough for movie enthusiasts, but familiar enough that it doesn’t estrange the casual Marvel moviegoer.
Eventually Marvel’s golden streak will likely end, and when that happens, we’ll look back on movies like Doctor Strange as something special. Despite not taking big risks, it nails the fundamentals of the genre and delivers a thoroughly entertaining end product. It won’t change your life, but I guarantee you won’t feel short-changed.
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